The Cathedral Debate 

Locals propose an expanded lakeside park rather than a new 170-foot-tall church

It's easy to see why architect Santiago Calatrava wants his new cathedral built at the south end of Lake Merritt. Viewed from almost any point in Lakeside Park, the 170-foot-tall, curving glass and steel edifice would dominate the landscape. The building, along with the wedge-shaped plaza surrounding it, would turn the lake into a giant reflecting pool, casting a mirror image far out into the water.

The Zurich-based architect has been hired by the Oakland Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church to design a replacement for the St. Francis de Sales Cathedral, which was damaged in the 1989 earthquake and subsequently demolished. The diocese says the new cathedral will be a "world class" building that will become a symbol for Oakland, much like the Sydney Opera House marks that Australian city.

The notion hasn't impressed a group of local residents and park activists, however. They say that Calatrava's $80 million cathedral would be out of place at the end of the lake, blocking views of the historic Kaiser Convention Center and taking up valuable parkland. They also say that the city shouldn't be selling off its public lands for private development. But rather than simply object to the diocese's proposal, CALM (the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt) has drawn up its own plan for the site, and submitted it to the city. The group says that its proposal solves many of the problems that have plagued the southern portion of Lake Merritt, and that it deserves equal consideration from city officials.

The 800-seat St. Francis de Sales Cathedral was the centerpiece for the Oakland Diocese, which encompasses Alameda and Contra Costa counties. It suffered an estimated $6 million in structural damages during the quake, and the church decided to tear it down rather than repair it. Initially, there was talk of relocating to Walnut Creek or Concord, but ultimately the diocese decided to rebuild the cathedral, along with related church offices, in Oakland.

The diocese then sponsored a competition to design the new cathedral, picking Calatrava over four other entrants. According to Brother Mel Anderson, who is serving as project director, the selection committee liked the "gothic sense" of Calatrava's plan, which features curving steel beams coming to a point some fifteen stories high. The interior has no pillars to block parishioners' views, and the building will have a meeting room and other facilities. The diocese has dubbed it the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

The decision to try to locate the new facility near Lake Merritt came when it was determined that the St. Francis de Sales site, at San Pablo Avenue and 21st St., was too small to accommodate the project. The diocese first attempted to buy a parking lot near the intersection of Grand Avenue and Harrison Street, but was outbid by a private developer who reportedly plans to construct a large office tower there. According to Anderson, it was Calatrava who came up with the building site at the other end of the lake. "He was taking a walk around the lake, and said 'Aha -- this is where it should be.'" Calatrava proposed situating the cathedral directly in front of the Kaiser Convention Center and surrounding it with a "grand plaza." The plaza would be elevated, so that both the parking lot and adjacent roads would still be usable, and it would extend all the way to the edge of the lake.

Last spring, the diocese asked the city about the 2.8-acre site, which currently accommodates the convention center parking lot, and got a favorable response from city officials. The proposal went to a council committee, but when word got out about what was going on, activists raised a fuss, and the city decided to issue a formal Request for Proposals for the site. This meant that any developer could make a bid, with the winner ultimately picked by the City Council.

Enter CALM. The group's nucleus had actually formed last year, when Mayor Jerry Brown announced that the city wanted to sell off another lakeside property, a former fire department building, to a developer. The activists fought the mayor vigorously and, it now appears, successfully (the sale seems to have been tabled, at least for now), and when they learned about the church's intentions they prepared to do battle again. In August, they held a public organizing meeting to present their own plan, and decided to take the unusual step of submitting a formal proposal to the city, as an alternative to the cathedral.

"We said, 'This is our opportunity to put in a pitch for what we think should be done here,'" says John Klein, one of CALM's founders, as he looks across eleven lanes of speeding traffic that criss-cross the strip of land between the parking lot and the lake. "We call this the world's shortest freeway," he adds. Indeed, cars coming from Lakeshore Avenue have to execute a series of tricky lane changes to get onto 12th or 14th streets heading downtown, while cars going in the opposite direction must negotiate several sweeping turns before finding the right street to get them into East Oakland.

Only the most daring bicyclist would challenge these streets, and as for pedestrians -- they should pretty much abandon the notion of trying to walk across. The only way to get directly from the auditorium to the lake on foot is to go through one of the pair of tunnels that run under the road. The city tries to keep the tunnels clean and eradicate the graffiti that lines the walls, but it's a losing battle: Sturdy boots are the order of the day during wet season; a gas mask wouldn't be a bad idea; and you're quite likely to encounter a chap enjoying some liquid refreshment or answering the call of nature. The shore of the lake isn't much better -- a rundown sidewalk overlooks a narrow beach that is generally choked with cans, cups, scraps of paper, and the like.

In contrast to the church proposal for a majestic cathedral, the CALM plan is simplicity itself. It doesn't touch the parking lot, focusing instead on the adjacent roadways. The number of traffic lanes would be halved, reduced to three in each direction. The underpasses and overpasses would be eliminated, and stoplights installed where the road intersects with 12th Street and 1st Avenue. As a result, a lot of land would be opened up -- the beach could be widened, with a gently sloping lawn leading up to the roadway. CALM envisions new walking and bike paths in each direction. These would allow people to get from Lakeside Park to the Oakland Museum and the Civic Auditorium more easily, and connect up with paths that run down the Lake Merritt Channel toward the Oakland Estuary. Crosswalks with pedestrian-activated stoplights would replace the tunnels.

It wouldn't be cheap -- CALM estimates the costs of demolition and construction work at over $60 million. The group suggests floating a bond measure to raise some of the money, and getting grants for specific improvements. CALM has also suggested taking the 68,000-square-foot parcel of land created by reconfiguring the roads and selling it for private development. That could raise up to $5.6 million, Klein says. "It would be a nice offset for at least part of the costs."

This clearly isn't a standard development proposal, and some city officials are skeptical. Though Councilmember Dick Spees says he likes elements of the CALM plan, he adds, "I think their funding sources aren't real." In contrast, the diocese has mounted a major fund-raising drive. It has already raised $13 million for a new cathedral, and says it has assurances of at least another $45 million in donations toward the $80 million it needs.

Klein is sensitive to the financial problems his proposal faces and says he is frustrated by the city's constantly crying poor whenever money is needed for parks, noting that it has spent millions of dollars trying to appease the Raiders, Warriors, and A's. "This is where I get my recreation and get my relaxation, and it goes begging." Naomi Schiff, another CALM founder, adds, "Unless the proposal is to do nothing down there, you're going to have to spend some money."

There are also legal issues involved. Klein, a paralegal, has researched old city records and newspaper accounts, finding evidence that he says shows that the land the diocese wants to use was originally purchased with money from a bond measure passed by the voters in 1907. This means that any transfer of the land to a private owner would require another vote of the people, he says. The city attorney's office claims to have found "no documentation" of Klein's allegation, and says that as a charter city, Oakland has the power to sell the property if it wishes. Klein replies that the city research was "less than sloppy," and adds, "As soon as you start looking, [the evidence] is everywhere."

As for the church's proposal, Anderson points out that the plaza would be open to the public, and the cathedral could be used for concerts and other gatherings. "I keep saying that wherever you have a cathedral, it's as public as it can be," he declares. He also says that the plaza design isn't set in stone. "It could be modified, no doubt about it."

In the end, though, the real snag in the cathedral plan may come from the laws of nature. Lake Merritt was once a slough, an arm of the Oakland Estuary, and the land under the proposed cathedral and plaza is all fill, which could liquefy during a major earthquake. CALM researchers have noted that the convention center is supported by hundreds of heavy wooden pilings, sunk deep into the earth. Some of these pilings are spaced only four feet apart.

Anderson admits that the diocese is looking for other possible locations. "There are some difficulties with this site, beyond the fact that there are some people complaining," he says.

The dispute will probably continue for a while. A council vote had been planned for sometime in October, but has apparently been put on hold, and it could well be that neither the diocese nor CALM will get what it wants. Naomi Schiff hopes that the diocese will keep looking for a place to build its cathedral. She's a longtime business owner in the uptown area, which has been struggling for decades. "We could use that kind of gathering place here," she says. "The Catholics could be a really positive force for change."

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